A word about failing… (and securing research grants)

eSafety Commission

Recently, I was hanging out with my kids and we were doing a drawing tutorial on the YouTube channel, Arts for Kids Hub. We were following along learning how to draw a volcano when I was struck by some of the things Rob (the tutor) was saying to his son (the student). Every time his son wouldn’t quite make the straight line, or stay inside the colouring lines, or just go a bit wobbly, Rob would just say ‘that’s OK ’cause we’re learning’.

[Just so you know, we drew some insanely cool volcanos that day.]

Anyway, it struck me that this was a reminder that sometimes getting bogged down in the details stops us from just getting on with the overall project – it really interrupts our flow. Kind of like when you are learning a new song on whatever instrument you play, and you can either focus on each note until it’s perfect, or work you way through the piece and perfect sections as you progress. One way is probably more correct, but the other is more fun and likely more insightful of the ‘other’ things you discover along the way.

I wondered if this approach would (could?) apply to my professional world.

Academia runs on perfection and there’s always pressure on us to do the best work we possibly can. This is not necessarily a bad thing, given the significance of the work that we do and the broader impact it might have. The outcome should be the best it can, while also done as a digestible effort for a wide audience. But if we perfect each increment of every step along the way, I wonder what opportunities we may miss. Would there be new discoveries that we miss by chance, or perhaps through serendipity?

I think this is definitely the case with research grant funding.

I was recently, along with two of my colleagues Dr Justine Humphry and Dr Olga Boichak, awarded a reasonably large research grant (around $250,000) from the eSafety Commission – a tier 2 grant category as we say in the biz. This is genuinely an amazing achievement and we are incredibly happy to be one of the funded projects looking at the emerging safety issues on social media for young audiences. You can read more about the grant and project here, and about the funding scheme and other funded projects here.

This project will take us through until mid 2023, with an official kick off in January next year.

I’m now well within my mid-career researcher (MCR) phase, which means I have progressed from the early career researcher (ECR) era – ECR is often judged as beyond five to seven years after completing one’s phd thesis (I submitted mine in 2013). During this time, you usually receive strong mentorship with senior colleagues for positioning your career, focussing your research and its outputs, teaching (if that’s your stream), and grant writing. I’ve had a reasonably strong track record with grant funding for research both through schemes internally at USyd and externally at the Australian Research Council and others.

The eSafety Commission grants were officially announced yesterday, with much media coverage, to which were part of a well-deserved celebration of our successes. We had web pages launched, media releases, tweets constructed and people sending congratulations and best wishes all day and night. It was lovely.

It did make me pause and think about the development of this research project up until this point. We had two failed attempts at various grants (Facebook and ACCAN) before securing this funding go-ahead. Also there would have been so many other great ideas from other research teams that didn’t make the cut for this funding scheme – I have certainly been in that category several times over. Such much effort and time invested in developing a research project and funding application, only to have it declined.

In academia especially, we always talk about our successes as this is our currency that opens the door for the next opportunity – it is our track record. But we never talk about our failings, and this is where the real learning is located. On this most recent successfully funded project, we learnt the following from our previous failed attempts at funding:

  • Boring things like how to follow procedures to submit through administration systems (which are actually really important);
  • That there are amazing industry partners in this space, and who we now work with like Youth Action NSW and Student Edge;
  • That our project has two prongs: one in digital disengagement, the other in safety for young people online;
  • That we have some amazing emerging scholars around us (looking at you Mahli-Ann);
  • That we have excellent knowledge in our local CALD communities; and
  • There is a huge gap in our knowledge around these important areas.

So yeah, we failed. But then we succeeded spectacularly. So I think that’s OK, we’re learning.

By jonathonhutchinson

Sydney based media academic. Researching internet technologies, social media and public service media.